The NHL season has reached its halfway point, as most teams will be playing their 40th game over the next day or two. It’s easy to dismiss the regular season in hockey as being inconsequential, and in the bigger picture I won’t argue with that. Home-ice advantage and favorable seeding means less in this league than in any other sport. But those very factors heighten the drama for teams right on the playoff bubble. If they can get in, who knows what might happen? It was just 2010 that the Eastern Conference Finals featured the 7th-seeded Philadelphia Flyers and the 8th-seeded Montreal Canadiens. Today the Notebook looks at three teams in each conference who are within a couple points of the playoff border on either side.
Washington (46, 8th): It’s been a tumultuous season for the Capitals, who’ve been renowned for regular season success and playoff flameouts in recent years. After an early coaching change, they were out of the playoff loop much of the first half until a 1-0 win over Pittsburgh last night moved them into the eighth and final slot. Alex Ovechkin has to step up and play like a star in these final forty games. He’s got 17 goals, which isn’t terrible, but it isn’t what he’s capable of doing. These numbers from Ovechkin would be like LeBron James averaging 13 points a game, or Albert Pujols hitting .285 with 28 home runs. They aren’t bad, but considering who it is, the team needs a lot more. Ovechkin’s job won’t get easier as long as center Nicklas Backstrom, an excellent assists man, is out with a concussion.
Pittsburgh (46, 9th): No team has been impacted more by a concussion than the Penguins, where Sidney Crosby, the league’s brightest star, has been out most of the year and shows no signs of an imminent return. The loss of Crosby means that instead of Pittsburgh battling Boston and the NY Rangers in the conference’s penthouse, they’re scraping for a playoff berth. James Neal can light the lamp and center Evgeni Malkin is one of the league’s best, particularly at getting assists. Whether Pittsburgh can get in the dance depends on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who sits right on the cusp of being either an asset or a liability.
Winnipeg (45, 10th): The Jets are the very definition of mediocrity and of the Eastern Conference teams discussed here, would have be the one the top seeds would most like to play come April. The goaltending is mediocre, with Ondrej Pavalec sitting on a 90.8% save rate and one of their leading scorers Blake Wheeler being someone who couldn’t fit into a high-level role at Boston. Evander Kane on the left wing is the one player who can make them dangerous in a one-game shot.
LA Kings (49, 8th): Los Angeles is one of the easiest teams here to get a read in. They play outstanding defense and have the best goalie among the six teams we’re looking at here today in Jonathan Quick. That alone makes them a team that can break a favorite’s heart in the postseason. They also have absolutely no offense and not even an individual player that really excites you. Which means an extended dry spell could drop them a place or two in the standings.
Dallas (47, 9th): The Stars have a respectable offense and they grade out strongly in 5-of-5 situations where there’s no power play in effect. Their offensive production is well-balanced across the ice, with Mike Riberio at center, Bruin castoff Michael Ryder* on the right wing and two quality left-wingers in Jaime Benn and Lou Erikkson. None of these are standouts who are going to electrify a crowd, but collectively they can Dallas a chance at the consistency needed to move up and grab a playoff spot.
Colorado (47, 10th): If the Avalanche make the playoffs, there’s going to be hockey fans that will die of boredom. This team does only thing reasonably well and that’s execute on their own power play, so if they get some favorable officiating they could do some damage. But there’s no elite goaltending and no signature players. They’re in the hunt now, but if that’s still the case in mid-March I’ll be shocked.
If you’re a fan of these six teams, or other contenders we didn’t cover today, like Phoenix (3 points back), Calgary (4 points back) or Buffalo (4 points back), the time for exciting hockey is right now.
*As a Boston fan, I’m sorry to see Ryder go. He made several huge plays in the playoff run a year ago, including a game-winning overtime goal in Montreal and an incredible hand-save across an empty net (see video) in the same series. Without Ryder, the B’s go out in the first round.